From the field: Reflections of a Yangon intern

Guest post by Julia Collins

The pounding rain muffles the sounds coming from the neighboring construction site. It is the rainy season in Southeast Asia and development season in Myanmar. With Myanmar’s recent debut on the global scene, it is the place to be for members of the development community.

World Economic Forum on East Asia 2013
Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Myanmar, 6/7/13. Photo: Sikarin Thanachaiary
In a recent edition of the Bangkok Post, Myanmar was mentioned more than three times in the business section alone. The articles reported on Japanese investment, Thai cement factories, and Norwegian sustainable tourism in Myanmar. Aid workers, foreign investors, economists, human rights activists, education specialists, you name it, everyone has caught Myanmar-fever.

The international spotlight is firmly fixed on this resource-rich, relatively untouched Southeast Asian country.

I intern at an independent policy research organization dedicated to the economic and social transformation of Myanmar. Led by Burmese economists, the think-tank recommends policies related to economic reform, poverty-reduction, and good governance. Professor Christina Fink, was instrumental in helping me find my internship. Her assistance along with the generosity of the Freeman Foundation Fellowship, enabled interning to become a reality, and for that I am deeply grateful.

I arrived in early June and am one of seven interns — four are also master’s candidates studying at Columbia’s SIPA, one is a law student from Yale and one a Burmese-American from Michigan State. We are fortunate to work alongside incredibly hardworking and intelligent Burmese research assistants, former political exiles, professors as well as a few foreign economists and lawyers. We often have internal trainings ranging from tax reform in Myanmar to media laws and hate speech to Myanmar’s role in the WTO to inform our research and endow us with a more comprehensive understanding of Myanmar’s reform process.

My work varies every day. Here is a vignette from one day. I am sitting with about 100 others, participating in a workshop in Yangon on the Future of Agriculture in Myanmar. USAID officials, local farmers, Myanmar economists, and foreign academics, lob interesting suggestions around the room. Providing farmers with cell phones to enable better communication and the sharing of best practices is one such recommendation. Uniting the various agricultural ministries (such as fish, livestock, and forestry) under one ministry was another. We break for tea and I walk outside, welcoming the fresh post-rain air and the pungent scent of tropical fruit.

Taxi in Downtown Yangon
Taxi in Downtown Yangon. Flickr/Axel Drainville
Formerly the capital of Myanmar, Yangon gives off the feeling of a drowsy teenager awaking from a long deep sleep — more than 50 years in this case. Locals and ex-pats alike frequently speak about the many changes of the past year.

One of the glaringly obvious examples of these changes is the surge in the number of taxis on the street. “Car kyat dae!” or “car crowded it is,” is one of the phrases I hear most often. It is used to exclaim, “So many cars!” A friend who had visited Yangon in 2011 and came back recently was in awe of 2013’s renovated, spotless airport and the prevalence of new cars ferrying passengers across the city.

Inside and outside Myanmar there is much discussion about “Too much, too soon” — the impact of the large flow of foreign investment and aid to a previously very isolated country. It is important to keep the dangers of international involvement in mind and proceed cautiously. The extent to which this is possible however, is limited — Myanmar is transitioning rapidly and shows no signs of slowing down.

As the transition train gains momentum, skeptics are encouraged to board to avoid getting left behind. One of the biggest skeptics of the government’s genuine commitment to democratize is the Kachin Independence Army. It is the last major armed ethnic group to sign a ceasefire with President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration. Kachin ethnic leaders, as well other minority ethnic group leaders, have fertile ground for their skepticism after a long history of broken promises.

The Hindu, a regional news site, quoted a Chin ethnic leader: “In 1947, the Panglong Conference led to the creation of the Union of Burma, and that had promised us federalism with autonomy and right to secession. But they backed out. We again signed ceasefire agreements in the 90s, but they never gave us political rights.” With Burma blooming on the world stage, there is an increasing amount of political space for civil society and ethnic group involvement; the time is ripe for national reconciliation, but it won’t be easy. The key lies in building trust between the mostly-Burman government and the justifiably skeptical ethnic groups.

Fresh from a short term study abroad course, Memory, History and Conflict — Dealing with the Past in the Aftermath of Mass Violence in the former Yugoslavia, I often wonder about the responsibility to remember in Myanmar. Perhaps one opportunity for reconciliation and trust-building is addressing the contentious history of this Southeast Asian country.

One of my Burmese colleagues commented on the different ethnic groups’ memories of the past and the value of addressing controversial histories. To paraphrase, she said: “Maybe I was raised in Yangon and my perspective might be different from my ethnic friends who were raised in their states and regions. There are huge inequalities between us, but we blame them for what they did and do to us, and vice versa; it [reconciliation] is still not going forward.”

Zyi Bekerman and Michanlinos Zembylas offer a useful theory that rephrases this blame-game and multiple versions of history issue. They argue that memory is not a linear dilemma with two opposite poles of forgetting vs. remembering but rather, a widening of memory to include others.

In Myanmar, the time is ripe for dialogue between and across ethnic groups and the government, remembering the past, and attempting to understand history from multiple viewpoints. Reframing and widening of the idea of memory could assist Myanmar’s transition by dealing with the country’s past to move forward with a consoldiated national identity.

Julia Collins
Julia Collins
Julia Collins is a research/program assistant for the Women and Water, South and Central Asia Project at the Elliott School and a master’s candidate studying conflict resolution and security policy studies.

Her areas of interest include post-conflict reconstruction, memory politics and dealing with the past, and promoting good governance in transitional democracies, especially in Myanmar. She graduated from UCLA in 2009 with a B.A. in political science, and minors in environmental geography and German. Julia has worked on Guam, lived in Hungary, taught along the Thailand-Myanmar border at a political training school for Burmese democracy activists, advocated for refugees at a Californian refugee resettlement agency, and worked for an NGO in Myanmar on development issues.

One thought on “From the field: Reflections of a Yangon intern

  1. JuliaCollins

    For an update on the peace process, see this short Irrawaddy article published Wednesday –

    The article touches on many interesting topics: future of peace process in Myanmar, if the peace process should consider current laws or keeping forging ahead, and rifts between top leaders.


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